AYOTZINAPA, Mexico (AFP) - The parents of 43 college students who are missing and feared to have been killed began a protest road tour of Mexico on Thursday to pile pressure on the already under-fire government.
Hundreds of supporters bid farewell to a convoy of buses carrying families and fellow students in Ayotzinapa, home of the young men's leftwing teacher-training college in the southern state of Guerrero.
The parents, who deeply distrust the government, want to tell fellow Mexicans that they do not believe their sons are dead and that the authorities should find them alive.
Violent protests have erupted since authorities announced last week that Guerreros Unidos drug gang henchmen confessed to murdering the students and incinerating their bodies after receiving them from corrupt police in September.
The government has stopped short of declaring them dead, saying it would wait for DNA test results on remains that were sent to forensic specialists at Austria's University of Innsbruck late Wednesday.
"They have disappeared but they are not dead. We want help finding them," said Blanca Navas, mother of missing student Jorge. "I don't believe the government at all. They've only been saying pure lies."
A first caravan of three buses was heading for north to Chihuahua state, which borders the United States and has endured some of the grisliest drug violence that has plagued Mexico for years.
Another bus was heading to the impoverished southern state of Chiapas. The convoys plan to meet in Mexico City next week.
"There is no doubt that the nightmare our sons went through was committed by the state. It confirms the collusion between the authorities and organized crime," Felipe de la Cruz, a spokesman for the families, told AFP before hopping on a bus.
'WE WANT THEM ALIVE'
The case has shaken President Enrique Pena Nieto's administration, turning attention away from his internationally acclaimed economic reforms and undermining his assurances that his security strategy to combat violence is bearing fruit.
Pena Nieto travelled to China for summits this week, brushing aside critics who said he should have stayed home to deal with the growing unrest.
Last weekend, thousands of people protested in Mexico City and a small group set fire to the door of the historic National Palace.
But the biggest shows of anger have been in Guerrero, where protesters burned the state legislature and the regional headquarters of Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) this week.
"They took them alive, we want them back alive," people chanted as the buses left on Wednesday, repeating a mantra demonstrators have shouted at every protest.
Parents of the students say they will only believe their sons are dead when they get DNA results from independent Argentine forensic experts.
The students vanished on Sept 26 after police shot at their buses in the city of Iguala, killing six people, and delivered the 43 to the Guerreros Unidos drug gang, authorities say.
The young men, who are from a teacher college known for its radical leftwing activism, had travelled to Iguala to collect funds but also stole four buses to return home when they came under fire.
Prosecutors say the city's mayor ordered police to confront the students over fears they would disrupt a speech by his wife.